Moorehead concludes this excellent book, enhanced by vivid photos of her women, so many faces suggesting their piercing intensity of purpose: “The partisans, who had come home believing that Italian society would be like the one they had forged in the mountains, felt betrayed. They were strangers in a country they had helped to transform, but were no longer part of.”
She depicts a tragic fate that is timeless, of dreams forged in adversity, shattered by collisions with practical politics.
Although it’s a well-known story, it has rarely – outside Italy – been told from the viewpoint of the women involved. Caroline Moorehead does so through the intersecting lives of four female friends in Turin who became staffette (couriers) in the resistance, delivering intelligence, letters and weaponry: Bianca (a communist law graduate and factory agitator); Silvia (a doctor); Frida (a literature graduate); and Ada (the widow of the anti-fascist Piero Gobetti)... Their transformation from studious, dutiful daughters into daring, scruffy, exhausted combatants is brilliantly and subtly told.... The melancholy coda, recounting what happened to the women – accidents, politicking, writing and addiction – completes a riveting read.
The ability to make a liqueur from apricot pips becomes heroic when alcohol is scarce and partisans are thirsty. The mundane becomes magnificent. Despite that unfortunate cover, Moorehead tries not to sensationalise this story; she recognises the importance of ordinary things. She appreciates that what made these women special was their resilience and fortitude. This is a sensitive and perceptive book founded on an appreciation of the role women play in any society, at any time. It is sober and serious, but still an easy read. Those looking for sensational tales of lascivious female warriors who fight and fornicate will be disappointed.
We continue to glamorise the French resistance while ignoring its far more effective and disciplined Italian counterpart. In the best book she has so far written, Moorehead corrects this imbalance with a narrative whose coherence perfectly matches its author’s admiration for her subjects’ redemptive idealism. Thanks in part to Allied obtuseness, fudge and compromise in the postwar political settlement of Italy, the new nation these women dreamed of never came into being. Crowds still flock to the Duce’s birthplace, a neo-Fascist minister has recently dominated the government and a degenerate school of pseudo-history seeks to sanitise the dictatorship rather than celebrate the heroism of those who fought against it. Moorehead thus needs to be read by Italians themselves. Over here, meanwhile, she deserves every prize going.